Halo Wars was something of a surprise when it originally released in 2009, being a rare and commendable attempt at bringing the traditionally PC-based RTS genre into the living room. A sequel was never guaranteed, though, especially not after Ensemble Studios were closed shortly after Halo Wars’ 2009 release. A sequel was eventually given the go ahead and the baton on to Creative Assembly, but Microsoft and 343 are letting us relive the original on Xbox One and PC with Halo Wars: Definitive Edition, available to play now in Early Access form for those who preorder Halo Wars 2: Ultimate Edition.
Featuring it’s own unique campaign set in the dynamic Halo universe, it follows some of the earliest encounters between the UNSC and the Covenant, set 21 years before the events of Combat Evolved. You take command of Sergeant Forge and his steadily growing army of UNSC Marines, Warthogs, Scorpion tanks and, of course, Spartans, as you battle against the forces of the Arbiter. Ensemble turned their years of experience making critically acclaimed real time strategy games to adapting and honing the genre for console, ensuring that Halo Wars was not only accessible but hugely enjoyable.
Playing the PC version of the game, it’s interesting to see how a game so carefully geared towards a console controller fares on keyboard and mouse – you can still play with a controller, if you prefer. Though you have full camera control through using WASD for directional movement and a modifier key to let you zoom and spin the camera via the mouse, it’s not quite as fluid and natural as when you have twin analogue sticks under your thumbs.
You still have the simplifying commands to select all units on screen or your entire army, but these are augmented by letting you assign groups of units to the number keys, giving you much more flexibility to micromanage your army. That’s not entirely necessary, as the console origins have it hewing toward a more streamlined style of strategy where selecting units en masse works perfectly well, but it lets you play out your plan of attack with greater precision if you wish to.
Halo Wars did little to trouble the Radeon RX480 in my PC, and it’s more than capable of running at 4K with a locked 60fps. Though hardly on the cutting edge, it looks pretty good, with improved textures and some effects quality, but that improvement is diminished when it falls back to surprisingly juddery pre-rendered flyovers at a mission’s start – something that’s also present in the Xbox One version – that can hopefully be fixed for the final release. The cinematics remain gorgeously rendered even after over half a decade, even if they’re not running at full HD.
The game should scale down very nicely to lower end hardware, with options to step down texture resolution, shadow detail, and so on. However, one thing that’s needlessly opaque is the resolution options. You can’t pick a custom resolution, with the game automatically running at whatever native resolution you have – it filled the atypical 1920×1200 just as happily as full 4K 2160p. Your only option is to uncheck the “high resolution” option, which cuts the game’s resolution to a quarter – on a 4K 2160p screen, it’s then running at 1080p, at 1080p, it’s running at 540p, and so on. It’s most noticeable in the interface, that’s for certain, but it’s odd not to just let you pick a game resolution from a drop down menu. It’s a minor foible, considering how light the game is to run.
Meanwhile on Xbox One the visual upgrades are also apparent, with crisp clear visuals making the best of the fairly limited army and map sizes that the Xbox 360 was capable of. There have also been definite graphical bumps given to the weaponry effects too, but overall there’s little else to distinguish it from the original’s functional design.
Halo Wars: Definitive Edition still makes for a great run in to the strategy spin off series. The added layer of strategic nuance from playing with keyboard and mouse is very welcome on PC, and something Halo Wars 2 can hopefully build upon. Creative Assembly’s sequel is set to arrive this coming February, building upon the original’s gameplay. It also features a new storyline set just after the close of Halo 5: Guardians, with new antagonists The Banished facing off against the returning crew of the Spirit Of Fire.
For newcomers to the series, or those looking for a refresher given the eight years since the original release, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition remains a great Halo-flavoured RTS whose narrative will keep fans happy, even without the presence of poster boy Master Chief.
Thus far, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is only available as a pre-order bonus for Halo Wars 2: Ultimate Edition. There has been no word from Microsoft yet on a separate release, but we remain hopeful!